The Catholic climate wars continue

And they're not helping the mission of the Church

Have you been following the written warfare between Michael Sean Winters and Dr. Robert P. George? If not, it’s worth a look. Their hostile back-and-forth offers lessons for the rest of us.

It began with George in early January writing in First Things. Winters responded in the National Catholic Reporter. George responded to Winters. And Winters followed up. Both make good and necessary points. Both harm the conversation as well.

While there is much one could say about the tit-for-tat of these two brothers in Christ, I’d like to make three observations.

First, George’s original piece in part warned that popes do not speak infallibly on matters of science—which is true. But Winters rightly countered that the pontiff does have insights about what’s happening around the globe based on the experiences of the universal Church—of everyday people that talk to pastors that talk to bishops that talk to the pope.

Here Winters is right. For example, I was recently speaking with Allen Ottaro of Kenya, who commented that farmers in Africa are aware from the knowledge of their elders that things in the fields are different than what they've been before. This is the sort of data to which Winters refers. (And it's the sort of on-the-ground data that I've experienced in 26 years as an environmental regulator, most especially from rainfall intensities.) True, such information is not peer-reviewed or publishable. But like it or not, such insights are informing the conversation.

Second, Winters misses a mistake in George’s reasoning. In his response to Winters, George writes,

If the pope wants to know whether it is going to rain tomorrow, he has no hotline to the Holy Spirit on the subject. Weather patterns are (to hew closer to the Church’s understanding of its authority) no part of the deposit of faith, complete at the death of the last Apostle, which the Pope and the bishops with him are protected from error in formally defining and clarifying over time. When it comes to meteorology, the pope has to do what you and I and everyone else must do: Consult the meteorologists.

But the subject at hand is not the weather. It's climate. The latter is a long-term trend. The former is the (sometimes wild) variation around the trend. In short: weather is not climate.

Demonstrating this is a helpful and brief animation.

Third, such public rancor is more than a bit scandalous. And it is petty. Not that I am immune to pettiness when I write, but this exchange takes it to a tragic level.

I suggest as a model of discourse the fabulous exchange in America last year “James Martin and Ross Douthat on Pope Francis, the Synod and the Demands of Law and Mercy.

And I also point to the recent words of Pope Francis on division in the Church, which, I believe, are relevant here:

If within a particular community there is no communication between people and no encouragement is given to everybody to practice [faith, hope, and love], the members of that community have privatized their faith. Each of them is looking for his or her personal salvation, not the salvation of everybody ...

Or, as Benedict XVI observed when commenting on Galatians 5:13-15,

I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another." … sad to say, this "biting and devouring" also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love?

Yes, sometimes we must correct those that we love. But what we say must be washed of pride and tempered with charity. And that is the reason for this post—that my two brothers may speak as brothers, with conviction and charity for the good of truth and thus the good of the Church and the world.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.